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Lisa Anderson

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A Tribute To Anita Hill After 20 Years

Posted: 10/10/11 05:23 PM ET

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
Mediate my own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self,
And then
I will be useful.

From "The Bridge Poem," by Donna Kate Rushin

Back in the day, Donna Kate Rushin's "The Bridge Poem" was a battle cry for me and many of the black women I knew. High-achieving, focused sisters who had entered seminary because God had called us, the community needed us, and we knew we had what it takes to make it all happen -- our embrace of this poem was our, "but-don't-get-it-twisted" response to the willingness of far too many in our lives to neglect or forget our full humanity. We are not your heroes, your martyrs or your saints. We are not your saviors, your truth-tellers or your wisdom-bearers. We are just 'we.' I am just me. And although our capacity to embody these sentiments often remained unrealized -- bowed under the weight of expectations coming from all sides to be all things to all people -- the fact that there were even words to hold a longing such as ours mattered.

I was reminded of this poem recently as feminist scholars and activists from across the country prepare to gather for the conference "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" on October 15, 2011 at Hunter College in New York City. They will come together to recall and analyze Anita Hill's ground-breaking testimony of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. When those events actually took place, I remember how Anita Hill was portrayed among my colleagues and peers. In contrast to the conservative pundits and media commentators who questioned both her veracity and her motives, Anita Hill was practically worshipped by everyone I knew. Quickly dubbed as the woman who brought the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace out into the open, her "remarkable strength" was the typical reason offered for how she could so nobly endure such a grueling testifying process. Like the unbroken line of countless generations of rock-solid black women before her, Anita Hill was strong, and the power generated by that strength was a wellspring from which so many could draw.

I certainly joined in the chorus of praise for Anita Hill back then, and I still do so today. Anita Hill is an amazing woman. In fact, at the risk of contradicting myself she really is one of my heroes. But even as I recognize her incredible gifts, and celebrate the movement she helped inaugurate, I also recall what it actually felt like to watch her during those hearings. The patient and poised resolve she maintained throughout the interrogation came at great cost, I thought. Her pain exhibited, but not embraced. Her story consumed, but hardly claimed as one of America's own. Her body scrutinized for any nuance of movement or intonation that might denote deceit or dissimulation, but not loved -- certainly not loved.

My heart broke a little for her each day. It broke because I recognized an all too familiar scenario unfolding -- the very idea that a black woman might be at once strong AND vulnerable beyond the capacity of America to notice, or if noticed, to endure. My heart was broken even as I was filled with enormous pride and inspired beyond words by her tenacious commitment to speak the truth of her life.

Because in the end, it was the fact that Anita Hill was and remains determined to speak not just a truth, or some truth, or even the truth to power that was the most important thing about her actions from my perspective. What was important about Anita Hill then, and the reason she remains a hero for me to this day is because she made the integrity of her person the impetus for her action. Her black female self-body, mind and spirit-was not a space for others to occupy with their need or their longing for relief, or gratification, for service or even for help. Rather Anita Hill embodied what it means "to be a bridge to nowhere but her true self." And out of that commitment she inspired a generation of sisters of every race, class, faith, age and orientation to do the same. Thank you, Anita!